I woke up at 1:30 in the morning thinking of Grandma Simms and remembering how I used to brush her hair. It’s been years since I’ve thought of her and I don’t know what brought her to mind now, but there she was, fixed in time in my mind’s eye and thoughts of her overwhelmed me.
I was fortunate enough to have had both my grandmothers alive growing up, Grandma Simms on my father’s side and Grandma Ashley on my mother’s. Today grandmothers have cutesie appelate, like Nanna, Bubba, Mammaw and such. Mine were just Grandma Simms and Grandma Ashley.
Grandma Ashley lived in England and I was 13 years old the first time I ever saw her, but I knew her as well as anyone might know their grandparents. We had corresponded from the time I learned to read and write. I can remember looking forward to receiving those little blue airmail letters that unfolded into my own personal slice of private time “talking” with my grandmother. And those little letters were mine, addressed directly to me, and full of love! They folded up and over into a little rectangle sealed on three sides to keep them closed. Then some unseen and untold number of people worked diligently to bring them all the way over the ocean and right to my door. How carefully I used the edge of a pair of scissors to slice open those three sealed edges, making sure they opened without tearing, for I did not wish to lose one precious word. Then, gently, I unfolded them from that compact little square into a full size letter with every visible space, front and back, pouring with information from my grandmother across the sea. How close I felt to her. I sometimes use that experience when speaking to people about studying the Bible and how that letter from God can bring us so close to him though we may not be able to see him physically. It’s our own personal letter from our Heavenly Father.
Grandma Simms, on the other hand, lived for many of my formative years right upstairs from me. We had a small house in Lodi, NJ. One of those little Cape Cod style GI homes built after World War II for the many homecoming vets and their brides. I was two years old when we moved in. I can remember the unfinished attic with a wood floor and lots of pink insulation in the walls. Why we had a bed up there I have no idea, but I vividly remember taking a nap one day with my mom and waking up all scratchy from insulation. Funny the things you recall.
When I was four, my grandmother lived a few blocks away in a small apartment upstairs from some kind of store or bar or something. I remember climbing up the stairs to get to her apartment where I would go after school, kindergarten or first grade, I can’t remember which. Life was really different then. I lived a mile from school and I can remember walking home each day, or at least to Grandma’s, with my friend Jimmy Pounds. Now our kids can’t go anywhere without being watched constantly for fear of predators, pedophiles who often live right next door to you without you ever knowing it.
I don’t remember how old I was when Grandma Simms moved upstairs, but I can remember my father and Uncle Herbert working diligently to expand the unfinished attic to make an apartment for her to live in. I thought it was magic. One moment the house had the common Cape Cod look, and the next, they had cut holes in the roof line and pushed it up , building sides to each of the two openings they had made, one on each side of the front of the house, thus making a kitchen on one side and a living room on the other. Wow, I was impressed. And they didn’t work alone because other uncles helped. How amazed I was at their abilities, although none of them were carpenters by trade. And then, when it was all done, Grandma moved in.
When my grandmother was seven, she had fallen on a pair of roller skates and hurt her leg. Perhaps nowadays that would be a small matter, but for her it wasn’t. It left her lame, and immediately following her accident she spent a very, very long recuperative period sitting indoors. While other kids her age were out playing and running and biking, she learned to crochet and knit and sew, skills that she later passed down to many of her children and to grandchildren, or at least to me and my cousin Jackie. No one ever knew it, but I grew up with a fear of roller skating, and you combine that with my own lack of coordination, is it any wonder I never learned to skate? I remember receiving a pair of skates when I was seven, the same age my grandmother was when she fell. I feebly tried for a short time to use them (not master them; just become mildly comfortable using them) but I was so cautious for fear of becoming an invalid like my grandmother that my heart wasn’t in it, and they were soon put away in my closet, never to be used again.
I spent many hours with my grandmother and learned a great deal. No one will ever really know how wise she was, but I do.
She was diabetic and had to give herself injections every day. As a child I was in awe of the fact that she could do that. Not just that she had the talent and ability to inject herself daily, but that she had the fortitude to do it! I remember thinking, if were me, I’d rather die than have to give myself injections.
She had 16 children over her married lifetime, half of which lived, and half of which died. My brother and sister-in-law have painstakingly found and recorded the names of all of the children, along with their year of birth and death, to be found on Ancestry.com. I never knew the names of those who died. I often wondered how she dealt with the pain of losing so many babies, but she never spoke of it with sadness. It was just as though she took it all as part of life. And though she never said so, I had the distinct impression that her life had not been an easy one at all.
I remember my father talking about living all over Jersey City growing up, a few months here and a few months there. I always attributed my gypsy ways to some sort of inbred need to wander, but in reality I think there was a much more commonplace reason for the moves. You see, my grandfather was an alcoholic, from what I was told. I now look back and wonder how many of those moves were made out of necessity and lack of funds. Raising 8 kids when your husband’s pay goes out as quickly as it comes in to pay for booze is not going to allow for much permanency in your dwelling place. So while raising her 8 kids, she also picked up jobs like washing and ironing. And then there was the bread.
It seems my grandmother had a really great potato bread recipe, so good, in fact, that Dugan’s Bakery somehow heard about it. Dugan’s was at one time a very famous, very large East Coast bakery. They not only supplied the mom & pop “grocery” stores, this being a time before supermarkets, but they had a truck that came around each week selling bread and cupcakes and the best crumb cake ever! Those were the days when your milk was dropped off at your front stoop and deposited into metal boxes that stood beside each front door, the scissor sharpener man came past jingling a bell periodically, shouting from the window of his truck, “Scissors, get your scissors sharpened,” in kind of a sing-song fashion, and Dugan’s supplied the other necessity of bread and cakes, all without you stepping more than 20 feet from your property line.
Grandma told me of the day that someone from the bakery came to her home and offered to buy her recipe. If I remember correctly, they offered her $100 (but I may be wrong on that figure as bread back then was selling for something like eight cents a loaf and $100 seems like a terribly large amount to pay for a recipe.) Anyway, she “sold” them the recipe. I don’t know if they ever made the potato bread; what I do know is that she never got a dime for the recipe. I can only imagine how crushed she might have felt if she were at all like me, planning in advance how to best spend that money, only to be disappointed at it never materializing. But she told the story without anger or rancor; it was just a story that was part of her life, and she knew I loved to hear them.
I spent hours upon hours doing jigsaw puzzles, playing card games, crocheting and knitting, and cutting out pieces for quilts. She loved to make quilts. How sad I am now that I let mine slip away. It was for a single bed and I wore that thing out, but I really wish I had that quilt now. And all the time we did those activities, she’d tell me about people she knew and things she did when she was younger.
So I awoke in the middle of the night to the memory of brushing her hair. It wasn’t long, flowing hair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Grandma Simms with long, flowing tresses (though I’ve never seen a really young picture of her) but her hair was fine and silky, so soft to the touch, with a texture just made for a young girl to “style.” The front and sides were very light in color, but somehow she knew that the back was more on the yellow side, and she hated that. She wished for a headful of solid snow white hair. She had these curved metal clips that were about two or three inches long with teeth along the inside and which opened and closed at the top with a spring-like action. You’d put those in wet hair and the end result was waves upon waves. I never tired of playing with her clips and her hair. Sometimes I just brushed her hair till she fell asleep. I really enjoyed brushing her hair, and I think I enjoyed it more because I knew how much she enjoyed having it brushed.
I grew up in a British family, not short on love, I’m sure, but very short on demonstrating it. There weren’t a lot of hugs and cuddles, and I was a kid who needed that. So growing up, I had a sense of not being loved. Silly, I know, but I’m sure lots of kids feel that way growing up. I was the only girl on the block, so there was no one to play with. When I was seven, my brother was born. He didn’t get much more cuddling than I had. I remember creeping in his bedroom when he was crying and holding his hand through the bars of his crib and singing him to sleep. I didn’t resent my brother, but it did make me feel somewhat less loved than I already felt, so somewhere along the ripe old after of seven or eight, I turned into a terror. I had decided that being a cute little angel hadn’t gotten me anywhere, so I was just going to be obnoxious until someone realized that I needed attention and offered me one day where I could have anything I wanted. I never really wanted anything, actually. All I wanted was the offer. In my mind, that was all that I needed, recognition that I wasn’t invisible. Of course you can’t tell anyone that that’s why you’re misbehaving; they have to come up with the solution all on their own and willingly offer the magic words that would instantly turn me back into the darling little girl they’d known before the birth of my brother.
I’m not sure how long that lasted, but I know it was exasperating to my parents, especially my mother. Both my parents worked full time and, certainly, my obnoxious behavior was probably the last thing they felt like coming home to after a long day at work. I do know that that went on, though, for at least a several months, and I was getting no closer to having my wish granted of finally being recognized. Then one day when my mother was upstairs talking with my grandmother I overheard her complaining about my attitude and expressing in dismay that she just didn’t know what to do with m anymore. My grandmother said, You know what? I think I’d offer her one day to have just whatever she wanted and let her know that that was it, there wouldn’t be any more. Maybe that would make a difference, she said.
I don’t know if anyone ever took her advice seriously, but I’m glad I overheard it. That was all I ever wanted, and although the offer was never made from anyone, my entire attitude changed. My wish had been granted, perhaps not the way I envisioned, but, nevertheless, my grandmother knew and understood me, and she loved me! What else could one wish for? I was no longer invisible, at least to someone.
I all too soon became a self-absorbed teenager and the hours and hours formerly spent with my grandmother now gave way to hours and hours with friends and outside activities. I would come home from school and see her sitting in her living room window upstairs in that house in Lodi, but I didn’t spend much time going up to visit with her. After all, I had homework to do and studying, and I needed to get it done so I could spend the rest of the night on the phone with my friends. I had a cousin who came each Friday night to have dinner with her. They lived quite a long distance away, but Janet and Bob were there like clockwork every week. I remember waving to them as they came in each week, as I sat in the couch watching TV, talking on the phone, and looking so attractive with my head festooned with giant rollers so I could look my best the next day at high school. It was now my own hair I was more concerned about, not my grandmother’s.
I was 20 when she went into the hospital and still obviously self-absorbed. My parents told me I should visit her, and so I did. I never even asked why she was there; I still don’t know. I remember her sitting up in bed, chatting and smiling as she always did. I’m not sure what I thought, if I gave any thought to it at all, but she looked perfectly fine to me and, in typical self-absorbed fashion, I wondered why this visit could not have waited till she came home. I have no memory of anything we spoke of that day, it was such a short and insignificant event in my life. Surely if her visit to the hospital had been anything serious someone would have told me something, but they hadn’t, and so that short visit has long ago passed into oblivious with no memory whatsoever of what passed between us after all those years of intimate conversation.
At her funeral I was inconsolable. “Stop crying,” ordered my mother, “you know you believe in a resurrection!” But I couldn’t stop, and to this day I’ve never explained to my mother why I was so tearful and distraught. You see, no matter what your belief or how strong your faith, there is nothing in the world that can ease your pain when you finally realize you’ve lost your last opportunity to say, “I love you, Grandma Simms. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all those sweet memories.”